At the Rhode Island Statehouse this Tuesday, civil rights and social justice advocates will be making a stand for an anti-discrimination trend that is sweeping the nation: “Ban the Box.” This box on job applications, asking if one has been convicted of a felony, is of little consequence to roughly 75% of Americans, but is no small matter for those other millions who have a criminal conviction. At a time when more people than ever are being released from prisons, with a vast majority being drug or non-violent crimes, it has become harder and harder to find a job.
RI House bill 5101, sponsored by Rep. Scott Slater, is scheduled for a public hearing at 4:30 pm in the House Labor Committee where the Chair (Rep. Anastasia Williams) is a co-sponsor. The bill is being pushed primarily by the grassroots organization Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE), with strong support from the RI Coalition for Addiction and Recovery Efforts (RICARES). Considering the overwhelming percentage of people in Recovery who “bottomed out” after court/prison intervention, this is particularly important for those overcoming addiction and needing a paycheck to re-establish their lives.
There is a rally at the Statehouse, and an open mic for people to share their stories, at 3pm in the Rotunda. Supporters include dozens of legislators, from civil rights champion Senator (Deacon) Harold Metts to freshman Republican (and business owner) Michael Chippendale. Re-entry organizations Amos House and Open Doors, labor groups Jobs with Justice and YouthBuild, and national organizations Drug Policy Alliance and National Employment Law Project (NELP) are among the strong supporters. Having a similar measure pass in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, and Minnesota over the past two years is a strong indicator that policymakers are hearing the message: “A Working Community is a Safe Community.” The bill does not eliminate background checks altogether, instead it puts off any inquiries (which are not required) until the interview stage. The move exempts state laws that bar certain felonies from certain occupations, but allows for people to explain themselves in the vast majority of scenarios.
The issue spread across the nation after a San Francisco organization, All of Us or None, took up the issue over a decade ago. The organization is composed of formerly incarcerated people, and now has chapters in various parts of the country. They have since partnered with NELP, and other activists who have worked on the campaigns, to provide data and support in other cities and states. DARE has been collecting petitions, online and on paper, and building awareness in Rhode island; themselves being led by formerly incarcerated people.
Recently released and looking for work, Meko Lincoln points out, “This only affects the people who are out pounding the pavement. The people like myself who are willing to take what is sometimes Minimum Wage, because we are willing to work as hard as necessary to get our lives back together.” Lincoln was released shortly before Providence police Detective Joseph Colanduono was sentenced to eight years in prison for his longstanding drug dealing activities. Lincoln went back to prison based on the word of Colanduono, lacking evidence, nearly a decade ago.
Rep. Slater’s bill will also provide an appeal process for erroneous criminal records, stop public viewing of dismissed charges, and stop outright bans on professional licenses and permits. These issues have been impacting a higher percentage of people over the years. Rhode Island’s population has increased by only 10% since 1970, while the number of people in prison in America has gone up nearly six times. There are currently more annual releases in America (700,000) than the entire number of people in prison in 1985, and roughly 25% of America has a conviction.
At current growth rates, people with criminal records will become 50% of the American population. The need for reform has been coming from the Right, the Left, and many points between. Ending employment discrimination is one step in the proper direction.
- Help Rhode Island “Ban the Box” Sign This Petition! (unprison.wordpress.com)